Dr. Barbara Nichols has achieved many
Global Nursing Impact
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
Barbara Nichols has come a long ways since her childhood in Maine, the last stop for
some slaves as they jumped off the rum-running schooners from Jamaica or decided to
stay in Maine on their way to Canada via the Underground Railroad. And perhaps it is
growing up as the speck of pepper in a shaker of salt that prepared Nichols for a
fascinating journey in the world of nursing that led Nichols to become the first African
American to head the American Nurses Association as well as the Wisconsin Nurses
Association. And she recently retired as the chief executive officer for the Commission
on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools through which she traveled the world
evaluating nursing programs for U.S. credentialing.
Since Nichols entered the nursing profession in 1956, she has seen a lot of changes in
“I was in nursing school before cardiopulmonary resuscitation, when penicillin was
considered the miracle drug and gave it for anything, before narcotics came pre-filled in
syringes — we used to have to mix the narcotics — before polyester and nylon uniforms
we wore white cotton starched uniforms, before intensive care units,” Nichols said with
a trace of her New England accent still present. “When I was in nursing school, if you
were critically ill, you had a private duty nurse. And private duty nursing was the major source of how people who were critically ill got
cared for. And families hired through the hospital a private duty nurse for each shift to give one-on-one care. All of these things are quite
amazing when you look back on it.”
For almost as long as she can remember, Nichols always wanted to be a nurse, even when the option of other health care professions
was mentioned. However, she did consider acting.
“Growing up in Maine, I was very active in the children’s theater, which was a summer playground theater that moved from playground to
playground and did original plays,” Nichols recalled. “I was very active in the children’s theater group from sixth grade through high
school. But the reason I decided not to become an actress because at that time Blacks were really only maids in movies and you couldn’t
get singing or dancing parts. So I decided that I would pick a job/profession where I would always have a job. That’s how I went into
nursing. That was the practical side, but for some reason, it was in my DNA.”
After she graduated from High School, Nichols entered nursing school at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, which was
affiliated with Boston University. While the school wasn’t segregated, it did have a quota for African Americans and Jews. There were only
five Blacks in the school.
“In the nursing school in Boston, there were no head nurses or supervisors who were Black,” Nichols said. “But the expectations were
that it didn’t matter what color you were, the expectation was that you were to perform. So even though they accepted people by quotas,
once you were in, you weren’t treated differently in terms of the expectation in terms of achievement. The social issues were handled
because our class had only 35 students. So everyone had a single room.”
Like many other professions, medicine also had its color lines. In 1908, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses was formed
as a kind of mirror organization of the American Nurses Association, much in the same way that the National Medical Association was
formed by African American doctors after they were refused admittance to the American Medical Association.
The Colored Graduate Nurses association disbanded in the 1960s when integration allowed its members to join the American Nurses
Association. Those African American nurses asked the ANA to continue to award the Mary Mahoney Award named after the first African
American graduate nurse in the U.S.
It was ironic to Nichols that on the 100th anniversary of Mahoney’s birth, she was one year away from becoming the president of the
American Nurses Association.
“So she was the first Black nurse in the United States and I was the first Black nurse to be president of the American Nurses Association
in its 100 year history,” Nichols said. “And it was equally true for Wisconsin. Wisconsin had its 100th anniversary in 2009 and when they
did their history, they’ve only had one ethnic minority nurse in its 100 year history be president and it’s me. No other minority has been
president of the Wisconsin Nurses Association.”
While Nichols was the president of the Wisconsin Nurses Association, she would participate in some of the activities of the National
Nurses Association. When she left the Wisconsin presidency, she ran for a seat on the National Nurses Association board and won.
“When I was on the ANA board, I watched and I decided, ‘I can do this job,’” Nichols recalled. “’It’s not that hard.’ But there are a lot of
informal rules that are not spoken like in the 1970s, the ANA presidency had historically been the epitome of a nurse’s career who had
made significant contributions to nursing. An example would be Dr. Hildegard Peplau who is known in nursing as the Mother of Psychiatric
Nursing. She wrote the first book on mental health and was the president of the American Nurses Association. Or Dr. Eleanor Lambertson
who espoused the theory of team nursing as a way of coordinating care and making care more personal and utilizing allied health workers
and nurses working in partnership and interdependently with other team members, was an ANA president. No one had ever heard of
Barbara Nichols. They wanted to know what my contribution was. The board members whom I served with said, ‘Besides, you sleep all the
time,’ which was true. I just had the twins and I would get to the ANA board meetings and I would sit down and I would go to sleep.
Unfortunately it was a true statement. I would say, ‘Well, I’m awake now.’ And they said, ‘Who knows you?’ And I replied, ‘My mother does.’
I was literally and figuratively called ‘The Dark Horse Candidate.’”
And while Nichols has been the president of the Wisconsin Nurses Association, she was up against some pretty stiff competition.
“I ran against Dr. Marian Murphy who at that time was the dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Maryland,” Nichols said. “And
she had just won the very prestigious American Nurses Association Award for Public Health Nursing. I also ran against Dr. Laura Sims
who was head of the nurse practitioner program at Cornell and president of the New York State Nurses Association, which was the largest
association in the country.”
What the other candidates didn’t have, however, was the loyalty, determination and pluck of Wisconsin nurses.
“They said, ‘We haven’t had a president from Wisconsin,’” Nichols said. “We think you’d be great at it.’ They raised $10,000 for my
campaign. They wrote their friends all over the United States telling them, ‘If you are going to the convention, please vote for Barbara or
speak up in your delegations. We think she’d be a wonderful president.’”
At the convention itself, the candidates were expected to host a reception. However, Nichols and her group had very little money to pull it
“Because I was on the board, ANA told me that we could use a room that they had already paid for that would be empty at such and such a
time,” Nichols said. “So we got the room free. And someone got Oscar Mayer to donate cheese and these little wieners. We carried them in
our suitcases. We would not be let on the planes nowadays. And when we got there, they talked the hotel into keeping them in the freezer
until we had our reception. Can you imagine that? We were resourceful. And my campaign manager, we laughed because we didn’t even
have the sense to stay in the same hotel. I had never run for office and she had never run a campaign.”
While it would hardly seem like an issue today and even though the ANA was composed almost entirely of women, Nichols still ran into
some opposition that questioned whether or not she would be able to effectively hold office.
“In the early 1970s, there was a lot of concern about me being a mother with three small children and leaving my children,” Nichols said.
“Who was going to care for my children? I said, ‘My parents are here. My husband is supportive and we will get help.’ And then what about
In spite of the obstacles, Nichols was voted in as the first African American president of the American Nurses Association. As the
president — through the support of her employer St. Mary’s Hospital that allowed her to work a part-time, flexible schedule — Nichols
logged in 160,000 miles a year travelling from coast-to-coast attending the meetings and banquets of the affiliated state organizations.
During her four-year tenure as president, Nichols visited all 50 states.
“You do a lot of congressional testifying,” Nichols said. “And then you meet with other professionals like the American Medical
Association and the American Psychiatric Association and the physical therapists. You do a lot of interdisciplinary work. ANA has an
executive director, a headquarters and a staff of about 200 people. The president is a ceremonial head and the spokesperson on behalf of
the profession. But you have paid staff who really do the work and help you look like you know what you are doing.”
During her tenure, Nichols accomplished a lot in terms of the credentialing of the specialty nurse professions.
|Dr. Barbara Nichols was the first African
American to head the National Nurses
Association as well as the Wisconsin